About a month ago, I wrote about Gracie, one of the mares at the horse rescue where I volunteer. Gracie’s a smart mare, but extremely skeptical of people. (And she has reason to be–she’s got scars on her body that were most likely human inflicted.)
I’ve spent time with Gracie once or twice a week since mid-February, and what a difference it has made! I’ve spent a lot of time just hanging out with her in the pasture and letting her get comfortable with me. (This is what Carolyn Resnick calls “Sharing Territory” and what Parelli calls “Undemanding Time.” Read more about these two strategies for bonding here.) I’ve also made friends with the other horses, which has greatly boosted her confidence in me.
At the beginning, she was happy to eat grain from a bucket that I held out too her, but that was it. She didn’t really want anything to do with me, but grain was a big enough treat that she was willing to stick her head in the bucket while warily keeping an eye on me, lest I try anything she didn’t like.
During the beginning and middle part of March, I started feeding her candy canes. When I met her, she was extremely skeptical about getting close to me and refused to take treats, even if I held an outstretched hand and looked away from her. Horses love peppermints, so I figured she might enjoy a candy cane. Plus, candy canes are long, so she wouldn’t actually have to touch my hand or even get that close to my hand in order to take the treat.
The several other horses she shares a pasture with are super friendly, so at least some of them would come over when I went to hang out with Gracie in the pasture. She’d eventually come over as well, to see what the commotion was all about. It always took a bit of creativity to offer her a candy cane from my outstretched arm while still keeping the other inquisitive horses somewhat at bay.
I wish desperately Gracie could talk to us and tell us her past and whatever happened to her. With the candy canes, she’d have to sniff it numerous times, until satisfied, she would quickly wrap her lips around it and grab it. Then she’d move back a step or two to eat in peace. However, sometimes, she’d lean down to sniff the candy cane and then her head would shoot up sometimes, her eyes wide and her nostrils flaring a bit, almost like she’d had a flashback to some bygone time.
However, boy did she like those candy canes! She’d stand there crunching them, and the rest of the horses and I could smell the mint on her breath. She remained skittish and untouchable, but pretty soon she was following me around the pasture, curious and inquisitive, trying to figure out when she might get her next goodie. Last week while I was sitting in the pasture, she even got brave enough to come close enough to sniff my boots and my pants leg.
When I showed up last Friday, Dawn remarked how much of a change she had noticed in Gracie. Gracie had come over to say hi while Dawn was at the fence watching the horses and she had let another friend touch her briefly on her face.
On Friday, I spent some more time just hanging out in the pasture with Gracie and her buddies. I had some treats in my pocket, but they were medium-sized, much smaller than anything I had tried to feed her before. But, I tried one anyways, and she ate it! So, I fed her about 10 more, and she stood there, eating them from my fingers and then looking for more. Then, I tried some of the fruit loops I had in my treat bag. Since the fruit loops are small, the horse’s lips have to come in contact with my hand while they figure out exactly where the fruit loop is and then pick it up. But, she let me feed her about a dozen of those, one at a time.
There’s still so many things we can’t do with Gracie. But, in about a month’s time, we’ve gone from having a horse who would not take treats by hand and wanted absolutely nothing to do with people to a horse who greets us at the gate, is curious and questioning, and is willing to stay close enough to eat treats by hand. What a difference a month can make!